Robert Kraft, a recording artist, songwriter and pianist prior to a nearly 20-year run as an executive at 20th Century Fox, is returning to performing -- for the grand total of two concerts.
The former Fox Music president will perform Oct. 30 at Joe’s Pub in New York and Nov. 5 at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles. Kraft, who continues to work behind the scenes with his Kraftbox Entertainment company, chose to do the gigs in conjunction with the release in Japan of a box set of recordings he did solo and with his band, the Ivory Coast, in the '70s and '80s, along with the Oct. 29 compilation release “Consensual Sets” on Milan Records.
“I’m really focused on these two gigs,” says Kraft, who has not performed live since the late 1980s. “It will be like skiing after not skiing for awhile. I’m going to hope that I don’t break my leg. There is no career move, no hope of something coming of it. On Nov. 6, after the Largo gig, I’m back to building my company.”
Kraft, 58, discussed the shows that will be him and a bassist, his artistic ambitions in the ‘70s and the beauty of being a musician working as an executive.
While the releases are tied in to the albums you released between 1979 and '85, how much will you make the shows about your entire career?
I’ll tell stories about how each of the songs led me to a new place, including writing a song called "Hudson Hawk." Who knew where it would lead? Or reading a book called "The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love." Or somebody asking me if I wanted to write a theme song for "Who’s the Boss?" Each one of these stories explains what it means to be a professional songwriter in Hollywood.
You had a unique concept with your band the Ivory Coast. What was behind that attempt to be contemporary rock-cabaret act?
In 1979, when the Ivory Coast was signed [to RCA], the two major music events were disco and punk, and being the bohemian kind of analog late-night guy I thought I was, I wanted to go in the opposite direction. I did not think there is no radio for this, no venue for it. It was late night music -- not a dance band, not a rock band -- and my sound was going to be Django Reinhardt meets Steely Dan, [with] lyrical songs. I kept getting dropped by labels and then signed [to RSO] as they hoped I would be more like Billy Joel or Al Jarreau. I’d say let me try that, but I have trouble sounding like anyone else.
You were producing music in the early ‘90s, co-producing “The Little Mermaid” and writing "Beautiful Maria of My Soul” for “The Mambo Kings” before you took the job at Fox in 1994. How much have you played the piano or written over the last 20 years?
Zero. I pretty much made a promise to myself when I took the Fox gig that it would be a complete conflict of interest if I were also a songwriter. In fact one of the first calls I got was from publisher who asked "So are you going to write all the songs now?" I said absolutely not. I wrote one song at Fox -- Babyface and I co-wrote the end title song to the movie "Anna and the King." It was nominated for a Golden Globe and I was miserable because I thought people would not take me seriously as an executive. I was so focused on being taken seriously as a businessman that I consciously decided I’m not going to play the piano or write.
You are the rare example of someone who goes to Harvard, becomes an artist and then goes into business. How much was music a part of your life when you were in college?
My parents came to visit me once and my father asked "What’s the most important thing you’re doing at school this year?" I pointed to a poster on a telephone pole of Robert Kraft and Sahara, my band, playing that Saturday night. I had a band all through Harvard and I started doing music for my friend’s films. The day I left, I went to New York to be a songwriter, thinking this is my opportunity to either crash and burn or succeed.
How did your decades of being a musician affect the way you dealt with musicians in the corporate film world?
On a professional level, I treasured my ability to protect musicians in the corporate world. People who were not sensitive to music tended toward being abusive or cavalier about how something must be easy. First of all I could be the interpreter. In movie meetings, [executives] would say things like "This cue needs to be a little yellow." Sometimes filmmakers would leave and I would have to hug a musician and say here’s what we’re going to do -- we’re going to add a shaker or change the bass line and they’re going to think it’s faster and we’re going to be fine. After the emotional therapeutic portion, I could speak the language. The other thing is I got to work with the greatest musicians in the world. Film composers are without fail the most profoundly inventive musicians because they have to do everything. The great ones write for an orchestra, write for a rock band -- a silly piece of music next to a profound tragic piece of music. All in a day’s work.